Commentary / World

Moving from Christian to Muslim democracy

BUDAPEST — This past summer, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly escaped being banned by the country’s constitutional court. State prosecutors alleged that the party was trying to “Islamicize” the country and ultimately introduce theocracy. After the decision, not only did AKP supporters celebrate but those in the West who view as a prototype “Muslim Democratic” party also breathed a sigh of relief.

The clear model for a moderately religious party — one committed to the rules of the democratic game — are the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Yet opponents of the idea of “Muslim democracy” argue that European Catholics only turned to democracy under orders from the Vatican, and that since Muslims do not have anything like a Church hierarchy, Christian democracy is an irrelevant example.

But history shows that political entrepreneurs and liberalizing Catholic intellectuals were crucial to the creation of Christian democracy. This suggests that Muslim reformers, given the right circumstances, might be similarly capable of bringing about Muslim democracy.

Christian Democratic parties first emerged in Belgium and Germany toward the end of the 19th century as narrowly focused Catholic interest groups. The Vatican initially regarded them with suspicion, perceiving their participation in elections and parliamentary horse-trading as signs of “modernism.”

A breakthrough came with the Italian Popular Party’s founding in 1919. Its leader, Don Luigi Sturzo, wanted it to appeal to tutti i liberi e forti — all free and strong men. The Vatican, having prohibited Italian Catholics from participating in the political life of newly united Italy for almost 60 years, lifted its ban. Mussolini soon outlawed the Popolari, and in any event, the Vatican had had a strained relationship with the party, appearing more comfortable supporting pro-Catholic authoritarian regimes in countries like Austria and Portugal.

While Christian democracy got nowhere politically between the world wars, momentous changes were initiated in Catholic thought. In particular, the French Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain developed arguments as to why Christians should embrace democracy and human rights.

During the 1920s, Maritain was close to the far-right Action Francaise, but the pope condemned the movement in 1926 for essentially being a group of faithless Catholics more interested in authoritarian nationalism than Christianity. Maritain accepted the pope’s verdict and began a remarkable ideological journey toward democracy.

He criticized France’s attempts to appear as a modern crusader, incurring the wrath of Catholics in the United States in particular. More importantly, he began to recast some of Aristotle’s teachings and medieval natural law doctrines to arrive at a conception of human rights. He also drew on the philosophy of “personalism” — which was highly fashionable in the 1930s as it sought a middle way between individualist liberalism and communitarian socialism — and insisted that people had a spiritual dimension that materialistic liberalism supposedly failed to acknowledge.

After the fall of France, Maritain decided to remain in the U.S., where he happened to find himself after a lecture tour (the Gestapo searched his house outside Paris in vain). He authored pamphlets on the reconciliation of Christianity and democracy, which Allied bombers dropped over Europe, and he never tired of stressing that the Christian origins of America’s flourishing democracy had influenced him.

Maritain also insisted that Christians, while they should take into account religious precepts, had to act as citizens first. Acceptance of pluralism and tolerance were central to his vision and he forbade one-to-one translation of religion into political life. He was rather skeptical of exclusively Christian parties.

Maritain participated in the drafting of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the Second Vatican Council eventually approved many of the ideas that he had been propounding since the 1930s. He also influenced the Christian Democratic parties that governed after 1945 in Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and, to a lesser extent, France, and which consolidated not only democracy but also built strong welfare states in line with Catholic social doctrine. By the 1970s, the parties even began to stress that one didn’t have to be a believer to join.

Maritain’s example disproves the claim that the analogy between Christian and Muslim democracy fails. It wasn’t the Vatican that took the lead in creating Christian democracy; it was innovative philosophers like Maritain (who never served in the Church hierarchy, though he was briefly French ambassador to the Vatican) and political entrepreneurs like Sturzo (a simple Sicilian priest).

Of course, Muslim democracy will not be brought about by intellectuals alone. After all, Christian democracy’s success is also explained by its strongly anti-communist stance during the Cold War.

Some of the philosophies used in the European Catholic transition to democracy — such as personalism — were rather nebulous, although it was probably their vagueness that helped to bring as many believers as possible on board. But the point remains that ideas matter. So the creation of a liberalized Islam by self-consciously moderate and democratic Muslim intellectuals is crucial.

Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton and currently an Open Society fellow at Central European University, Budapest, is the author of “Constitutional Patriotism.” © 2008 Project Syndicate (

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